One-Minute Book Reviews

February 4, 2014

‘Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’ / Quote of the Day, Herman Melville

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 am
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Is any book ever “finished”? Here’s Herman Melville’s view of the subject, as described by William Pritchard:

“At the end of the ‘Cetology’ chapter in Moby-Dick, after Ishmael, or Melville, has presented us with a seemingly exhaustive classification of the various kind of whales, we are told that this ‘Cetological System’ must remain, like ‘ the great Cathedral of Cologne,’ unfinished:

‘For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’

“The fear is of ‘succeeding’ by writing a sentence – a book – that isn’t sufficiently a ‘mighty book’ because it’s too finished. ‘To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,’ he says elsewhere in the novel. This means that there can be no end to expression since the whale – the world out there – is inexpressible.”

From William H. Pritchard’s essay “Herman Melville” in Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, 2007), selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser.

March 5, 2012

‘The Average American Author Earns About $9,000 a Year’ / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:51 am
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Herman Melville died broke after his publisher refused to give him an advance for Moby-Dick, one of America’s greatest novels. Do contemporary writers fare better? You might wonder after reading a recent essay by Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild. Turow noted that American publishers want to pay authors a royalty on e-books that is about half of what they pay for books on paper:

“The problem is that the average American author earns about $9,000 a year from writing as it is. Decreasing the rewards will inevitably drive more people out of the profession. And it is hugely unfair, because publishers do quite well with e-books. They have no costs for paper, printing, warehousing or distribution — and no risk, as is the case with physical books, that the volume will be returned for full credit by the bookseller, which is the great bugaboo of publishing.”

The plight of writers looks worse when you consider what Turow didn’t say: The federal poverty level (the threshold for government benefits) is $11,170 for one person. And the $9,000 a year figure he cited appears to have changed little in the past half century. More than 30 years ago, the American Society of Journalists and Authors surveyed its members and found that they earned slightly more than $10,000 a year from writing. The Authors Guild and ASJA figures suggest that writers earn roughly as much as migrant farmworkers, who have a median annual income of about $11,000.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

February 9, 2012

Cruelty in Creative Writing Workshops — Quote of the Day / Francine Prose

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:02 am
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An old joke says that a sadist is someone who’s nice to a masochist. By that standard, you find both types in creative writing workshops that require students to submit their work for critiques by their classmates. Francine Prose suggests why in an interview with Jessica Murphy Moo in The Atlantic online, reprinted in Reading Like a Writer, that includes these comments:

Francine Prose: “I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is all about being different from everything else – not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous.

“ … there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole [workshop] process. I mean to sit there and have the love of your life – your work – something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers. …

Jessica Murphy Moo: “And not to be able to say anything.”

Francine Prose: “Yes – and not to be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, ‘This just bored the hell out of me.’ So instead you say, desperately, ‘I think you should show instead of tell.’ Where’d  that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!”

Comment from Jan:

Philip Hensher was right that a creative writing workshop “can be wonderful, with the right group, with a proper level of trust; or it can be atrociously unhelpful.” Journalist Cheryl Reed got little help from students’ comments she received while getting an MFA. “Most contributors offered terrible and conflicting advice,” she said on her blog. Reed added that although she received many favorable comments on her fiction, the workshop process on the whole wasn’t helpful: “It was mean and mean-spirited.”

I had to submit my work to peers in my undergraduate journalism classes and found the process neutral, neither helpful nor harmful. Perhaps the experience was benign because I had a gifted professor or because the rules for news-writing are clearer than for fiction: Your story has an inverted-pyramid structure or it doesn’t. I’ve also led workshops in college journalism classes I’ve taught, and they had more flexibility than those Prose describes: My students could respond to comments. But I’ve used workshops sparingly for reasons implicit in Reed’s remarks: They can amount to — if not in the blind leading the blind — the nearsighted leading the nearsighted. Some creative writing programs may require workshops partly because, in writing classes that last for several hours, they give everyone a break from the lecture format. For that reason alone, some students and professors welcome them.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often tweets about writing, by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 20, 2011

What Makes a Book Review Work? Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:25 pm
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Many well-written book reviews are unsatisfying because critics fail to describe and evaluate an author’s main ideas or themes. Longtime Library Journal editor Barbara Hoffert alluded to the problem at a recent National Book Critics Circle program, “Book Reviews, Revamped.” Hoffert said she often tells reviewers:

“I want to know what this book’s argument is, and does it make sense?”

July 28, 2010

Donald Margulies’s Play ‘Collected Stories’ – A Poet in His Youth, Again

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:37 pm
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A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career

Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.

Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”

Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.

Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”

Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”

You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.

Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.

You can order Collected Stories online though Dramatists Play Service.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 4, 2010

What Is the Role of the Unconscious in Writing? Quote of the Day / Stephen Spender

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Authors often speak of their work as largely a product of their unconscious mind. In interviews, for example, they often say things like, “I didn’t write that book – it wrote me.” The poet Stephen Spender came closer to the truth for most authors in “Warnings From the Grave,” an essay on Sylvia Plath pubished in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium (Indiana University Press, 1970), edited by Charles Newman. Spender’s observation applies to many kinds of writers although he was speaking of poets:

“Poetry is a balancing of unconscious and conscious forces in the mind of the poet, the source of poetry being the unconscious, the control being provided by the conscious.”

March 15, 2010

Grand Prize Winner in the 2010 Delete Key Awards for Bad Writing in Books — Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:33 pm
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Yes, the hero teaches courses in the nonexistent field of “symbology” at Harvard University. But too many lines in The Lost Symbol (Doubleday)  flunk English, logic, history, or other subjects. Dan Brown wins the Grand Prize in the 2010 Delete Key awards for these lines:

“The only wrinkle was the bloody black-clad heap in the foyer with a screwdriver protruding from his neck.”

Yes, a screwdriver sticking out of your neck is always something of a wrinkle.

“It was no coincidence that Christians were taught that Jesus was crucified at age thirty-three …”
Just as it’s no coincidence that people were taught that Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors.

“Thankfully, this particular crypt contained no bodies. … The entourage hurried through, without even a glance at the four-pointed marble compass in the center of the floor where the Eternal Flame had once burned.”
As opposed to one of those three-pointed compasses you usually see.

“His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway [sic], his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.”
That “archways of mystical power” helps to make this passage read like a cross between The Secret and recruitment brochure for McDonald’s.

“According to Nola’s spec sheet, the UH-60 had a chassis-mounted, laser-sighted, six-gigahertz magnetron with a fifty-dB-gain horn that yielded a ten-gigawatt pulse.”
Did Tom Clancy send in a play from the sidelines here?

Tom Chivers of the Telegraph collected 20 of the worst lines from Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and other books.

Read the shortlisted passages from all the finalists here.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

First Runner-Up in the 2010 Delete Key Awards for Bad Writing in Books — Seth Grahame-Smith’s ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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Elizabeth Bennet’s best friend turns into a Regency zombie and appears to channel Mammy in Gone With the Wind in a passage from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk), the second runner-up in the 2010 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books. Jane Austen weeps as author Seth Grahame-Smith has Charlotte Lucas say:

“‘What can be da meaning of dis?’ howled Charlotte, as soon as he was gone. ‘Mah dear Ewiza, he muss be love you, aw he never wuh have called in dis famiwiar way.’”

Read all the shortlisted passages from all the finalists here. You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Second Runner-Up in the 2010 Delete Key Awards for Bad Writing in Books — Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Pygmy’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:59 pm
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Ever thought it would be fun to read an entire novel written in Pig Latin? No? Then you may want to avoid Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Pygmy, written in a pidgin English so relentless it almost makes the idea of reading a novel in Pig Latin sound like fun. The author of The Fight Club is this year’s Delete Key Awards second runner-up for for:

“Succulent barrier much thrusting mammary glands shield operative me, swinging lady buttocks further thwart attacks.”

“Tongue of operative me lick, licking, touching back tooth on bottom, molar where planted inside forms cyanide hollow, touching not biting.”

“In greater afraid … within thinking machine operative me, this agent ponder if entire being operative me pitted for destroy American, annihilate homosexual, crackpot Methodist religion, Lutheran and Baptist cult, extinguish all decadent bourgeoisie – subsequent successful total such destruction: Render this agent obsolete? Of no worth?”

Read the shortlisted passages from all the finalists here. You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2010

Winners of the Delete Key Awards for Bad Writing in Books –Coming Monday

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:42 pm
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Which authors wrote the most memorably bad prose in 2009? Find out Monday when One-Minute Book Reviews announces the winners of the Fourth Annual Delete Key Awards for writers who don’t use their delete keys enough. You can read the shortlisted passages here, all from bestselling or otherwise well-known books published last year in hardcover or paperback.

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